Saturday, June 4, 2011

A yummy life

Contents of my fridge
My lovely big sister has almost finished the final draft of a terrific memoir. She noticed that many of her stories had a focus on food, and so included a tried-and-true recipe with each story. It's wonderful to read these stories that bring our family meals and eating habits so vividly to life. As for Jill's adult life as a cook and hostess, it was shaped by her creativity and common sense as a young wife, producing menus with colour, taste and charm for sixpence.

This got me thinking about influences on my own cooking and eating over the years. At our age, we're walking, talking gastronomic encyclopaedias. Let me count the ways my own life has shaped the way I eat...

1. My mother: healthy, tasty, simple, cheap and fast! Celia did everything with flair and shortcuts, including cooking. With a big family and a full-time job, she raced into the kitchen and single-handedly prepared our meals at high speed. Daughters did the washing up. The cheapest cuts of meat, fresh veges and fruit from the garden, milk, cream and butter from the cow, eggs from the hens. All organic before there was need for such a word. Porridge, soup, meat and three veg, and pudding to fill up the corners.

2. So-called Continental Cooking classes in 1959-1960. Heavy rich dishes like vol au vent and Hungarian goulash. Add cream and sherry or wine to everything. Put apricots and prunes into casseroles. Exciting, satisfying Friday night food for blokes after the pub.

3. Reefton boiling, roasting and baking. The cooking of my mother-in-law, Vi, was perhaps the most exotic I ever encountered. Boiled mutton with white sauce. Cabbage boiled to mush. Mutton roasted in 3 or 4 cups of lard. Little cakes with strange names and many processes, like Louise cakes and Eccles cakes and Boston buns. I was astonished but did not emulate.

4. Switzerland, from 1961-64. This was a gastronomic awakening for both Grant and me, and we have never recovered, thank goodness! Foods like asparagus, oysters and radishes honoured individually, a course in themselves. A salad with every meal. New foods every day. Fondue, raclette, sauerkraut. Wine with meals. Discovering small quirky cafés with one special dish and a fierce chef. Food was an obsession, and yet it was simpler than the jumble of items we had been throwing on our plates all our lives. For raclette, you only need cheese, gherkin and potato—but it has to be the right cheese, the right gherkin and the right potato.

5. Feeding my own family. As a housewife and mother of four in Masterton, I applied everything I knew to feeding my family. No problem, plenty of fun. When children disliked a food, I cruelly forced them to eat one mouthful—one pea—one bite of asparagus: usually there came a day when their eyes filled with wonder, because suddenly, they got it! Oysters were yummy!

6. 1970s dinner parties: competitive cooking. Bored housewives all, we tried to outdo one other with culinary masterpieces. I produced bombe Alaska, fillet of beef Duke of Wellington, crepes suzettes, boeuf bourgignon—you name it. Ridiculous. But what else is a girl to do in Masterton?

7. Hippy brown stuff. Whole food Vegetarian cafés began popping up in the 70s. Note the capital V, granted because much of this early Vegetarian food was primarily ideological. It pretended to be meat: lentil burgers, vege sausages, tofu steaks, brewers yeast and lecithin on everything. Some delicious, some disgusting, all of it righteous, too much of it brown. In Taranaki and Golden Bay, I lived among the hippies. Vegetables remain my top-favourite, number-one primary food group. I love them as they are and I don't like to see them tortured.

8. The Japan aesthetic. For two years I lived as a privileged professor in Kyoto, the heart of elegant Japanese cuisine. For a time, I lived with a tea professor and a kaiseki chef. My aesthetic sense was polished to the point of baldness. I make sashimi and I love the Zen side of food appreciation, but I'm fussy about which Japanese place I eat at.

9. Cafés and Moore Wilson. Living in Mt Victoria means passing cafés every time I walk to town. Small, beautiful, fresh, creative snacks and meals. Fusion without fuss. Lunch in a paper bag from De Luxe. Brat in a bun at l'Affaré. Breakfast with friends at Mojo. Business meetings at Jimmy's. Well, you get the drift. Then when grandchildren come to stay it's yum cha or sushi or both.

10. Travels in Asia. Life takes me here and there. China, Tokelau, Tonga, Samoa, Malaysia, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India, for example. Each time it's a reminder that the ethnic meals produced in New Zealand are a pale reflection of their original selves, brushed bland for our foreign palate. The world is full of amazing flavours.

11. Live-aloner stair-thinker cooking. Living with a family or even just one other person, I found it easy to produce meals for 2 or 4 or 10. But I've lived alone for more than 20 years now, and my habits are very different.

Nowadays, cooking for one person is what's easy and soothing and fun. Virtually every day I cook something wonderful for both lunch and dinner. Yesterday's lunch was a salad of silver beet (lightly steamed), baked beetroot, persimmon, walnut and feta cheese. Other days last week I ate Thai red curry fish soup, pork and pea soup from my freezer, salmon omelette with a green salad, toasted sandwich—whatever, I love it all.

Normally I run downstairs from my office, and on the stairs I think about what I'll cook. Today, for once, I'm thinking ahead: rösti with a salad of broccoli and pear, maybe. It depends what's in the fridge. And there's always enough for one person.

But you can't prepare a menu for guests while running down the stairs. You have to think ahead. Make decisions. Even go shopping. The cooking is still easy, but thinking about what to cook can be strangely disconcerting. I am better at making lightning decisions than methodical ones. What's more, I invent many dishes on the spot and never make them again. Recipes do not feature. So I'm illogically nervous that the dish of the day might be just too eccentric for anyone but me.

The sum total? I'm happy with my food. Almost every meal I say out loud, 'Yummy! Mmm! That was delicious!' What I eat is constructed from a brilliant foundation in childhood, the constraints of raising a family on a budget, the wonderful foods available to us here in this privileged enclave of New Zealand, and the stimulation of many outside influences.

And every step of my culinary development has been tightly associated with particular people. That's the beauty of it.

Lucky lucky me. I have a yummy life.

That's my food story. What's yours?